What to do if a cruise ship crashes at the North Pole?

Cruise ship

Climate change places new demands on emergency preparedness in the Arctic.


By Laura Philbert, Polarfronten 


Climate change has caused sea ice in the Arctic to melt and create larger areas of open sea. This means better opportunities for sailing, such as cruise tourism and new routes for transporting goods between Europe and Asia. Greater activity in Arctic waters can create economic opportunities for Greenland but will also increase the risk of serious accidents at sea, warns professor at Ilisimatusarfik – University of Greenland, Uffe Jakobsen.


“If you look at how many rescue operations there have been, you can see that the majority of accidents at sea are rescued successfully. You handle the everyday accidents well, but the big question is, what will happen on the day when a large cruise ship with thousands of passengers crash in a deserted, impassable place in the Greenlandic waters?”


Uffe Jakobsen has participated in the research project MARPART, where a number of researchers have investigated the activity in Arctic waters, the risk of accidents, and the possibilities for international cooperation on emergency preparedness.


Greenland’s big problem

With a rescue percentage close to 100%, Greenland has good control of the handling of accidents at sea. And maritime activity has only increased slightly in the period between 2005 and 2015. Which is why, as Uffe Jakobsen explains, maritime traffic does not pose an increasing safety risk in itself.


But when climate change opens up completely new shipping routes far from inhabited coastlines, it creates a new set of challenges that can make future rescue operations difficult – especially if Greenland has to deal with major accidents and help is not immediately available.


Uffe Jakobsen and the rest of the researchers dive into this problem with the research project MAREC – a research project born of the MARPART project – which looks at preparedness and international cooperation in the event of major accidents at sea in the Arctic.


“The big problem in Greenland is distances and lack of infrastructure, and therefore also long response times. If there’s an accident in a remote place, it’s completely random if there are resources nearby that you can draw on. It can be other civilian ships or military ships that are in the area, but otherwise you will just have to wait,” says Uffe Jakobsen.


This message is echoed by Commander Michael Hjorth, who is head of the operations and rescue center in Arctic Command, which handles the Armed Forces’ tasks in and around Greenland and, among other things, is responsible for search and rescue services in Greenlandic waters.


“Most accidents occur in populated areas on the south and west coasts of Greenland, but when accidents occur in more desolate areas, it may take some time before we arrive. Greenland is enormous, and the distances are one of the biggest challenges.”


The North Pole will be a new tourist destination

Michael Hjort adds that the cold and changeable weather also creates great challenges.


“If people have an accident, it’s important to get them fished out of the water as soon as possible, and give first aid help, because the water is cold up here. We’ve seen examples of people being able to survive for hours if they are wearing life jackets and vests, but otherwise you can be gone in a matter of minutes. The weather is also a huge challenge. Here, it can change from fine weather to terrible weather in a matter of minutes. And both wind and waves play into a rescue situation at sea.”


According to Michael Hjorth, the new opportunities for sailing in Greenland will mean that you have to look more closely at the emergency preparedness in the areas where there is typically no sailing. He points out that, among other things, cruise ships are now being built to sail to the North Pole.


“It would be a good idea to prepare for accidents at the North Pole. If something happens up there, we don’t have immediate rescue helicopters that can be deployed to rescue anyone. Right now, they aren’t prepared for the tourism that we’re likely to see at the North Pole in the future.”


Annual drills

Uffe Jakobsen points out that a major accident in Greenlandic waters will be an enormous task – too big for Greenland to handle by itself. It will require cooperation with other countries.


“One possibility would be to develop a higher degree of international cooperation to solve the problem of response time. From the Danish side, for example, it could be to reduce the reaction time by having some containers ready with equipment that can easily be driven into a Hercules transport aircraft and flown to Greenland. But there’s also the possibility of cooperating with Canada, Norway, and Iceland which have shorter distances and thus shorter response time,” he says.


Michael Hjorth agrees that Greenland itself would not be able to handle a major accident without international cooperation.


“In the event of a major accident, we depend on everyone cooperating. And if you want to be as effective as possible, it is crucial to practice beforehand. This also applies in relation to oil spills.”


He explains that a lot has happened in the last 10 years in terms of cooperating and unifying procedures with the other Arctic countries. In 2011, under the Arctic SAR Agreement, they committed the Arctic Coast Guard to conduct annual exercises in rescue operations at sea.


“We run a number of exercises every year, both nationally in Greenland and internationally. These exercises have taught us a lot about how to organize ourselves. And I think we’re well-equipped in the event of a major accident,” says Michael Hjorth.


Contact: Uffe Jakobsen or Michael Hjorth

This article is part of a theme issue of Polarfronten about Arctic Hub. The issue has been made as a collaboration between Arctic Hub and Polarfronten.

The MARPART research project
- MARPART is an international research project on “maritime preparedness and international partnership” in the Arctic. In addition to Greenland, Iceland, northern Norway, and northwestern Russia are also involved in the project
- The project investigates whether climate change entails a greater risk in connection to more activity at sea
- The study shows that activity in the Arctic Ocean has only increased slightly in the period 2005-2015. In particular, the number of tourist ships with less than 500 passengers has increased
- In continuation of the MARPART project, which was completed in 2018, researchers are now working on the international research project MAREC. The project, which will be completed in 2022, examines requirements for rescue operations where many people need help under complex conditions
Top picture The first exercise in collaboration with the other Arctic countries, held on the East Coast of Greenland in 2012 (photo: Lars Bøgh Vinter/Danish Defence)
Picture 1 In 2011, the Arctic countries committed themselves to conducting annual rescue exercises at sea. The first was held in Greenland in 2012 (photo: Declan Hanegan/Danish Defence)